Parsi community disappointed as HC permits Metro III tunnel work under Fire Temples

Dec 01, 2018, 11:00 IST | Arita Sarkar

Parsi community shocked as Mumbai HC clears Metro station under fire temples: human compassion grounds not applied, says top Zoroastrian scholar

Parsi community disappointed as HC permits Metro III tunnel work under Fire Temples
The Anjuman Atash Behram

At 11 am on Friday, the Parsis present in courtroom 52 of the Bombay High Court waited for Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice RG Ketkar to announce the fate of their sacred Atash Behrams. That anticipation was replaced with disappointment as soon as they announced that the tunnel boring work will be allowed to continue as part of the Metro III project, subject to certain conditions.

After the order was pronounced, senior counsel Navroz Seervai, representing the Parsi community, asked for an extension on the stay order for two weeks until they were able to approach the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Patil turned down their request. The order stated that the plea to extend the stay was rejected, since the Metro III project involves huge costs and any delay in the project may further escalate it.

Judges unconvinced
The primary thrust of the argument made by Seervai focused on Article 25 of the Constitution (freedom to religion). The judges, however, were not convinced with the arguments or the evidence placed on record. Referring to the argument that the construction of the tunnel beneath the fire temple would desecrate the sacred premises, the order states, "The Metro tunnel is to be bored 60 to 65 metres underneath. It goes to one corner of the Atash Behram premises at a safe distance from karshas, therefore, the theory that drilling of the tunnel would desecrate the Atash Behram is not convincing and logical, much less the tenets of the Zoroastrian religion."

Referring to Seervai's argument that the spiritual circuits of the Atash Behrams will be breached and negative forces will attack the holy fire if the tunnel goes under the fire temples, Justice Ketkar stated in the order, "These beliefs have nothing to do with the Zoroastrian religion or faith. The petitioners have failed to establish that these beliefs are integral to Zoroastrianism. Mere faith or belief of the Parsi community would not render these beliefs for protection under Article 25 of the Constitution of India... The opinions expressed by the High Priests cannot be considered as an essential religious practice as it does not derive its basis from any religious texts or scriptures. "

Members of the Parsi community were disappointed with the outcome. Ratan Patel, one of the petitioners, said, "The judges could have given us some time to prepare our argument for the Supreme Court and granted a stay. The stay on the Metro work was on for six months. What harm would a couple of weeks do?"

Parsis hurt
The judge's perception wasn't well-received by the religious leaders of the community either. Khojeste P Mistree, a Zoroastrian scholar, said Parsis have been massively hurt because the judges have gone against the religious sentiments of a community, when they could have altered the tunnelling plan. "When you're talking about matters of the spirit, it is a question of faith. It's a great shame that the judges haven't applied the element of human compassion to understand that matters of religion entail faith and belief," he said.

Referring to the reluctance of Metro authorities in cooperating with the community's wishes, he said, "The Metro authorities are totally insensitive to the issue because the Parsis probably don't constitute a large enough vote bank. It's very unfortunate, particularly when the Parsis have contributed hugely to the well-being of not only Mumbai but also the whole of India."

It's in the water
Mistry pointed out that his concern lay more with the well water in the Atash Behrams, which is integral to the Zoroastrian religion. "The well water is critical to the rituals performed in an Atash Behram. As a result of tunnelling, if the water channels change, then for all practical purposes you cannot do any rituals in the fire temple. If the well runs dry, then the fire temple is redundant," he said.

Also disheartened with the judgment was Jamshed Sukhadwalla, who led the legal battle in the matter, which was supported by the entire community. Sukhadwalla pointed out that the tunnel boring machines are only 100 metres away from the Anjuman Atash Behram. "The machines will reach the fire temple within the next 12 days, after which the sanctity of our fire temples will be lost. We've tried our best and not taken it lying down. It's sad that religion has been taken for a ride today," he said. Cannot move four metres...

More than the judgment, Yazdi Desai, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) was disappointed that their plea to extend the stay order had been rejected. "It's a big disappointment and I'm unhappy with the BJP. Narendra Modi talks about Parsis being invaluable, but they cannot move four metres [for us]. We're disappointed that the court didn't given even agree to give a stay. By the time this matter comes up for hearing, the tunnel boring machine would have reached the Atash Behram," he said. One of the BPP trustees, Noshir Dadrawala said, "Our legal team was ready for this outcome. They'll now file the petition in the Supreme Court and we'll hope for relief." Meanwhile, one of the Metro officials who attended the hearing said, "We have to see the conditions we've been asked to follow and figure out how we'll implement them. But we'll start the work soon."

Metro has to follow...

  • Authorities shall ensure that no damage is caused to the two Atash Behrams
  • While the tunneling work is in operation, there shall be strict monitoring of vibration levels 24x7 using necessary devices and equipment.
  • During the boring of the tunnel passing beneath the two Atash Behrams, a specially constituted team of experts shall be present.
  • If necessary, the Tunnel Boring Machines shall be slowed down while the tunneling work is in operation beneath the premises of two Atash Behrams.
  • Controlled blasting method shall be adopted for boring tunnels underneath the two Atash Behrams
  • Necessary equipment shall be installed in different places in or around the two Atash Behram structures to monitor levels of vibrations.
  • Continuously monitor water levels of the wells situated in the premises. Necessary precautions shall be taken in that regard by installing ground water charging wells.

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Mr.Tehemton B. Adenwalla, a member of TZML group has put a note to help clear some doubts persisting in people's minds on this matter:

1. The Parsis are not against progress for Mumbai or Maharashtra or India. In fact, they are the pioneers and have laid a solid foundation so that Mumbai is the city of dreams for millions of Indians even today.

2. They are also not anti-Metro as wrongly portrayed. MMRCL has submitted with not 1 but 8 re-tunnelling options so that the Metro trains do not pass under the Holy and Consecrated Atash-Behrams (which are the highest grade consecrated places of worship of the Parsi community). Structural experts were roped in from India and internationally too to frame these alternatives. In their supreme arrogance, or perhaps they had already made their mind to not listen to the Parsi community's earnest pleas, the MMRCL did not approve even one of the alternate options, which would have made a minor re-alignment of 4 metres and would have not passed underneath the Holy Wadiaji Atashbehram. The other Atashbehram in danger is the Anjuman Atashbehram.

3. We have reports of Metro authorities around India re-aligning Metros to save a religious banyan tree, the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, and other religious places in the south of India. Surely the request for the Parsi community to save their 180+ year Atashbehram - which can never be re-consecrated or even re-located in today's conditions - was a very reasonable one.

4. The argument put forth that a place of worship is not part and parcel of a religion is not only absurd but highly insulting to any religious group - be it the Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, etc. How can a religious community be separated from its places of worship? Are they asleep and not aware of the importance of the Ayodhya temple, the Sabrimala temple, the Gurudwara at Kartarpur, etc.

5. It is disappointing that the judgement concentrates more on the prevention of the structural damage to the Atash-Behram. Though that aspect is significant, it is not the main or only point of worry to the Parsi community. Thousands of Parsis have signed 2 petitions at Change.Org, where they have clearly mentioned about the Spiritual damage to these places of worship. Any duly consecrated place of worship in the world would have been created with some religious ritualistic ceremony, and the adherents of that faith would continue to keep that place sacrosanct decades after that. For an Atashbehram to function properly and impart its blessings to Parsis and all humanity in its vicinity, a condition is that no part of it must have any movement beneath its premises, and the contact with earth should not be broken.

6. Asking Parsis for religious proof of each and every religious tenet they presented in their plea is insulting and lacks courtesy when the world knows that so much of the Zoroastrian literature was burnt down by Greeks and other invaders of Iran.

7. The Parsis are also disappointed with the BJP government both in Maharashtra and at New Delhi for not intervening when this matter was brought to their notice many months ago. Just giving lip service that Parsis are great people and gems of India, and then not help them when their religious places are in grave dangers is not characteristic of the great Indian tradition and culture of tolerance and protection of all religions within its borders.

8. In a way, both judgements - the one of the Supreme Court on the Sabarimala case and the one of the Bombay High Court on their Atashbehrams - have disappointed and hurt and shocked the people who are most affected, i.e. the sincere devotees. In other words, both judgements did not take the religious arguments too seriously, which is not very healthy since the religious rights of devotees are of importance too.

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